Thursday, August 20, 2015

Chuck Schumer would be a nuclear disaster as Senate Democratic Leader

A few months ago, some lobbyists told me that Chuck Schumer was likely to become Senate Democratic Leader after Harry Reid steps down. This had me deeply disappointed. A lot of Schumer's rise to the leadership has involved getting money from Wall Street (his home state is New York) and using it to buy power within the Democratic Party. But it didn't look like there was any way to stop his rise. I'm generally a look-on-the-bright-side kind of guy, so I tried to content myself with the thought that we might make progress on other issues by using his ill-gotten money to maintain control of the Senate, even if he blocked financial regulation and higher taxes on the financial sector. It didn't really work -- those issues are important.

Now he's announced that he's going to vote against President Obama's astoundingly good Iran treaty. And he's spreading misinformation that originated on Fox News and other right-wing media sites against the treaty. His claim that "you have to wait 24 days before you can inspect" is highly inaccurate -- there are lots of ways for inspections to happen faster than 24 days even if Iran doesn't want them to, and if Iran tries to delay the inspections repeatedly, there are mechanisms for the international community to reimpose sanctions. As arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis writes,
Some of us might think it’s good that the agreement puts defined limits on how much Iran can stall and explicitly prohibits a long list of weaponization activities. Opponents, like Schumer — apparently for want of anything better — have seized on these details to spin them into objections. A weaker, less detailed agreement might have been easier to defend against this sort of attack, perhaps. 
... The claim that inspections occur with a 24-day delay is the equivalent of Obamacare "death panels." Remember those? A minor detail has been twisted into a bizarre caricature and repeated over and over until it becomes "true."
This treaty isn't just important for eliminating the threat that Iran will use nuclear weapons -- it's important for preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East where nations like Saudi Arabia build nuclear weapons to deter Iran. In such an unstable region, the fall of a nuclear-armed state could easily put nuclear arms in the hands of some people who could do a great deal of harm. Perhaps Schumer's solution to those problems will be along the lines of his 2002 vote of support for the Iraq War. (Hillary Clinton, who also voted for the Iraq War, supports the Iran nuclear treaty.)

Fortunately, the Democratic wing of the Democratic party is mobilizing against his ascension to the party leadership. I don't know whether they'll be able to stop him, as he looked certain to succeed Harry Reid until recently. But it matters a great deal, and I'm more confident in the need to keep Schumer out of the leadership than in my opinions on the Democratic primary. I'll explain why.

I think Bernie Sanders has a small but real chance of defeating Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Primary. If both sides play perfectly, she wins by coming out with enough interesting left-wing policy that she doesn't alienate the Democratic primary electorate on substantive issues, and electability issues and her enormous funding put her over the top. But campaigns don't always do a perfect job, and she fails to make reasonable-looking leftward moves, she could lose. Obviously we need to see a lot more general election polling to figure out whether Sanders could defeat Walker or Bush or (this probably won't happen, but...) Trump in a general election, but if the polling doesn't make a good case for Sanders, I can see a lot of Democrats being worried about whether he can win when the time comes. And it's so terrifying to imagine a national version of what Scott Walker did to Wisconsin that it could be a rational decision to play it safe with Hillary rather than going for the big risk/reward with Sanders.

But set all that aside. Suppose we're watching a Bernie Sanders inauguration in January 2017, and we have a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress! This would be an utterly spectacular outcome. You'd expect awesome legislation to follow. Except it turns out that Bernie can't get meaningful financial regulation through Congress, and also can't make progress on a variety of foreign policy issues, because Schumer is obstructing financial regulation and peace in the Middle East as Senate Majority Leader. As far as I can tell, this is what ends up happening in a Sanders administration, if the Schumer ascension goes through as planned and the Senate is in the hands of someone more conservative than Hillary Clinton with oceans of Wall Street money behind him. And that's why it's so important -- perhaps more important than the Clinton/Sanders primary -- that Schumer be stopped.